Having a baby can, quite simply, turn your world upside down. The transformation from woman to mother is one of the most profound changes we’ll ever experience, and there’s no one way to navigate it. Advice (whether you’re looking for it or not) is everywhere. So how do you begin to work out which parenting path to take?
We asked one of Australia’s best-known breastfeeding experts and gentle parenting advocates, Pinky McKay. Pinky is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), best-selling author, award-winning businesswoman and mother of five. Her TEDx talk, Surrender is Not a Dirty Word, introduces the idea of surrender as a way to deal with the pressure and overwhelm that sometimes come with motherhood. She tells us what surrender means and how it can help mamas find their way through the baby years and beyond.
Hi Pinky. Can you explain to us what you mean by the idea of surrender?
To me, surrendering is about accepting where you're at and allowing yourself some grace.
It's not about waving the white flag, giving in, or rolling over. It’s about trust and acceptance that this is where you are at right now, and this is where your baby or child is at right now.
By the time your baby's born, your pituitary gland at the base of your brain is double its normal size.
This little gland is churning out a whole mummy margarita of hormones that make you protective and nurturing towards your baby. But then you've got all the outside noise saying, “space out feeds, don't breastfeed your baby to sleep, you need to train your baby.” Before you know it, you're in a mess. Imagine if you could shut the door to all that noise, trust yourself, and just surrender – “this is where we are right now, but soon my baby won't need to feed every half hour,” for example. Because as your baby’s little nervous system starts to develop, they won’t be as unsettled.
It doesn’t matter how capable you were before you had a baby. Many of my clients have been doctors, lawyers, and professional women who are suddenly melting down because having a baby can be overwhelming. It’s hard for everybody. You think, “how can this baby, this helpless little person, get me into such a mess?” But it’s all new, and your body is healing. You might have had a C-section; you might have been through labour. Either way, it’s a massive recovery. Your whole body has been doing the massive task of growing a baby for nine months, or maybe your baby was premature. There’s so much happening that you have no control over, and sometimes trying to control your life with a baby is a way of feeling in control. But really, that’s the last thing you can control. So, it’s better to surrender to what is there and look at something else you might have some control over.
Of course, babies have different temperaments, and we’re all dealing with different circumstances. Some babies are more sensitive to light and noise, for example. So, you might have to go to a quiet room for a little while and let them recalibrate. Or you might need to hold them skin to skin and rock them for a while. Or some babies may gain weight more slowly while others are chubby bubbas. You can find ways to support your baby if you need to. If you're having feeding difficulties or your baby is really unsettled, of course, you can look outside and find people who will help you, but make sure those people feel right to you and that you have confidence in those people. And then you can be present with your baby. You can start enjoying them instead of fighting against the noise all the time. Because often, women are just dealing with expectations pushed on them by others.
What happens once we choose to surrender?
We’re able to be present because we’re not flooded with stress hormones as we try and fight something we can’t necessarily change anyway.
An example might be a mother trying to get her baby to take a longer nap. She could spend half an hour resettling her baby in a dark room, standing patting the baby, or patting the mattress, or whatever someone told her she should be doing. And then her baby sleeps for five or ten extra minutes, and she’s wasted her morning or afternoon. Instead, she might as well just pick up that baby and cuddle them, go out and enjoy them, or pop them in a carrier. They might fall asleep again. Then mum can go for that walk that she wanted to go for or just finish putting dinner on (because often it's the interruptions to tasks that start to become frustrating). She can just surrender and say, “Okay, so he woke up, he might go back to sleep now, or he might have a play and go back to sleep later.” She could sit down with him as he lies on the floor and plays. Or she could just chuck him back on the boob. It doesn't matter if he had a feed 40 minutes ago and then went to sleep. He might just have a few sucks and go back to sleep. Then if she needs to put him down, she can (if he'll go down). If he doesn't, she can just enjoy a nice cuddle nap and say in this precious moment, we're having a cuddle. Dinner will still be there. The dishes will still be there. The toddler will still be running around. Maybe her toddler will read a story with her. I know it sounds really idealistic if you've got more than one child, but by the time you have a second baby, you’re probably surrendering in all sorts of ways anyway.
Whatever age your child is, there will be a need to surrender at times. It doesn't mean you've given up. You're taking the pressure off yourself to fix things that maybe can’t be fixed. You're accepting that this is how it is for now. And it might be just right now in this moment, it might be this day or this week, or it might be until you get the help you need, or your COVID isolation is finished, or your toddler's cold is better. Whatever's happening right now, you're accepting it. And you're making the most of that time in the best way you can. It's not going to be forever.
It makes a lot of sense. But how do we actually surrender?
It's really about educating ourselves and being kind to ourselves. Again, it's about shutting out the noise. It's about finding support for the way that you want to do things. Having at least one supportive friend or confidant, or it might be your mum. But it's also finding the information that supports you. Perhaps find a supportive website with helpful articles or a supportive social media page. For example, while Lactamo is a really useful product, it also has a support system around it. It's not just about getting this product and fixing yourself. Lactamo’s website and founder, Etta, are all about supporting women in their journey. And I think that's a helpful thing.
Surrender is about exploring those things that might be helpful to you now. Something like Lactamo might be really helpful for you if you know about it. You can use it for those uncomfortable boobie things, like a very gentle lymphatic drainage massage to help mastitis. And you can heat it or cool it. So, it's a helpful tool, but I think the support that goes with it is important too.
Surrender is also about accepting help and accepting options that might be helpful to you in your situation now. We all say to mothers, “reach out for help,” but I think that’s a really hard thing for mothers to do. I think we all have a responsibility to reach in and offer that mother help. And then her surrender is to accept it. If my friend comes over and holds my baby while I have a shower, I am going to feel a hell of a lot better. And I don’t have to feel beholden and return the favour. I might pass it on to somebody else.
If you're feeling confused and conflicted about what to do, I always say to people to filter the advice you’re getting by saying, “Is it safe? Is it respectful? And does it feel right for me?” There's so much noise around, and sometimes the noisy voices get the most play. But they don't know your baby. You know your baby the best.
If in doubt, please always consult your healthcare professional.